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Dreaming Heritage in Buhi

Buhi is one instagrammable town. Or, maybe I am saying that having been away from the hometown of my father for a long time.

To an outsider’s eye, though, Buhi seemingly accessible only from one direction, glories in its isolation. Those words indicating being detached from the rest, different and distant despite the few 53 kilometers from the next small city, which is Iriga, have always painted the town in a unique way. It is a uniqueness that is imagined, negotiated, and maintained for the sake of making one’s remembrance of it more beautiful.

This feeling of isolation when one enters Buhi is present in everyone’s memory of the town, and the number of people remembering it includes those who were born in it, or lived in it for a long time, but are now residing somewhere. I belong to a different category – that which covers persons claiming kinship with the town and some of its families.

I could count the number of visits I had made to Buhi. The rarity of those incursions have a default effect – the town is always beautifully strange in my mind. From the outside, it is a town that cannot change, or should not be changed. Mountainous in general, with low-lying hills seemingly extending from the elevated roads, the town opens to a lake that appear to end at those verdant slopes. A chance to travel across the lake would reveal villages and coves, streams that surface from the forest and clump of trees and vegetation.

Two huge mountains dominate the Buhi horizon: Mt. Malinao and Mt. Asog. Malinao is higher (5,079 feet) than Asog (3,924) but, as with human beings, the past makes us more colorful and irascible. Asog, with its voluptuously massive crack, a result of a great eruption, is the volcano living from its ruins. It has a past and that would not go away.

Buhi has a great and dramatic past and it also would not go away.

Last week, I was in Buhi. What would have been a pleasant respite from the long lockdown became an exercise in heritage building, even if the exercise was on the level of dreaming, or wishful thinking. As with all intellectual processes, it began with an image – an assault on the senses.

As we were turning around the bend of a street that seemed to go around and around, we beheld the old church. Interesting how modifiers always can invade and insult our memories. There was nothing old about the church; it was my way of bringing the town back to my embrace.

This town by the lake is old. Its church is old.

A rusty, faded marker tells us the history of this church and the towns. Several dates are proclaimed: founding of the town in 1573; a church repeatedly destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt and rebuilt.

In 1735, it is told another church was “built.” Then sometime between 1870 and 1884, the “present” Church was constructed. Then there was a fire so great the roofing gave in.

Last week, I decided there was nothing old about the old church. Its façade made of stones were now polished to a dull, dumb finish, a result of ill-taste cementing. If the institutional church sanctioned this alteration or repair, shouldn’t we put there also on the marker the name of the person/priest/consultant responsible for these changes?

That week, each day, I would pass by the church, the “old” church, and take photos of what remained of it – the belfry magisterial and supreme. Again, I was caught in modifiers, in adjectives that judged the town and how it had handled heritage.

Do the people of Buhi look in awe at how venerable the belfry of their church is? Is it right to maintain a structure – the Franciscan church – despite the fact that it exemplifies colonization?

That week in Buhi, in conversation with Dr. Mary Jane Guazon Uy, we were belaboring the concept of heritage. What value does an old church have for the people? What does “ancientness” serve the town?

Heritage is really memory. Some events are forgotten because the facts – buildings, rituals, persons – on which memories are built are gone or have been destroyed. In another mood, I would have shrugged off the significance of the church and yet the belfry, through hundreds of years, have stood there. It had seen lives and deaths, baptisms, marriages, gatherings. It had seen this town grow old through wars and famines, and natural calamities. It is important. It is as important as keeping the lake clean, and making sure the ecologies are protected. It is as valuable as the people across the lakes, as crucial as taking care of the children in those villages threatened by floods and erosions, as beneficent as the rituals enacted by local actors making sense of myths colliding with myths as persistent as present politics.

We all must agree, however, that heritage requires an active memory and action. Heritage in whatever form can only live on if we want to give it life; otherwise, we are the executioner of the present that cannot go on because it does not know where it came from.


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